There is a wave of momentum building towards the narrative that this Premier League season is a bit of an aberration and that any winner will likely have an asterisk attached to it. However, on closer inspection, the last 4 seasons were the real aberration. Prior to the 2016-17 season, only 5 sides had broken the 90-point barrier in 24 years. In the last 4 years, we’ve had 5 sides break that barrier with 4 ending the season as Champions and one side falling just short.
If you’re a Fantasy Premier League enthusiast, you might’ve come across the term “fixture proof.” It’s a term used to label players who are likely to provide you with valuable points, regardless of the opposition that they face. In the last 4 seasons of the Premier League, these 90+ point sides could also be labeled as fixture proof. They were, for the most part, capable of decimating any opposition and went about it a myriad ways.
That’s fine, but where do Manchester United come into all of this? Well, before the start of every season — due to their historical domination of the Premier League — Manchester United are always expected to field their own fixture-proof squad, or at least take baby steps towards it. The start hasn’t been great.
The feel-good bromides of Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig are quickly followed by the sweeping apathy (a hallmark of the post-Fergie years) in losses to Arsenal and Istanbul Başakşehir. Well, for everyone who suggests that United don’t have an identity, they do — this is it.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United are consistently inconsistent.
Former United captain Gary Neville, like many an armchair manager, is scratching his head for potential solutions, only to be trolled online by his mate Jamie Carragher. One week, he’s suggesting midfield solutions on Monday Night Football. A week later, he’s making assertions that Solskjaer fielded a diamond in United’s humbling defeat to Arsenal on a wing and prayer; that he had to yield to the pressure of keeping his many midfield options content. Well, wasn’t that one of your suggestions Gary?
Neville’s a decent pundit and he can get away with getting it wrong but Solskjaer, unfortunately, can’t. The former captain’s more immediate concern was that the current United squad have more problems than solutions. And he isn’t wrong there. There is no secret formula to winning football matches and league titles, however, in recent years, these record-breaking sides in the Premier League (who also have been some of the best in Europe) have had some common denominators.
We’re going to have a look at them and see if United can apply some of these common denominators to their own side (short answer: no) and who are the players in the current side who are relatively fixture-proof.
How did these sides get so good?
United’s Achilles’ heel is their inability to consistently break down teams that sit deeper or employ a low-block. So it’s only right that we have a look at what these impressive sides did when they were in their possession phase.
In theory, football is a game with 11 players who are responsible for attacking and defensive functions, but the images above offer a fairly noticeable split. Five outfield players in all 3 sides are tasked with primarily attacking functions with the 5 others tasked with primarily defensive functions. There’s also a level of symmetry that Wes Anderson would be proud of.
What’s also peculiar here is that many of these positional setups can be traced back 100 years. They take a form that’s awfully similar to the pyramid and W-M formations that made for many of the opening chapters in Jonathan Wilson’s magnum opus — Inverting the Pyramid, often credited as the tactics bible.
Back to United. United did field 5 primarily attacking players through the course of Project Restart and the results and underlying numbers were fairly good — ‘til they got mortifyingly bad at the start of this season.
Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes were the 5 attackers during this period only they weren’t set up remotely close to the sides that have been mentioned here. All the signs, unfortunately, point towards the Arsenal game being the last dalliance between Bruno and Pogba in Manchester United’s midfield.
Neville suggested that United should attempt to field Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba in a manner similar to what Pep Guardiola’s centurions did with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. Carragher rejected it immediately by claiming the 2 did not have the discipline required.
Where are the wingers?
Guardiola’s centurions are the gourmet version of this 5-man attacking set-up. They were devastating and they gave us the famous advanced 8s in Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, but unfortunately also got many believing that anyone could follow this set-up. Now, the easy conclusion would be to suggest that United just get a dynamic defensive midfielder like Fernandinho (there aren’t many around, anyway) to free up the more attacking threats, but it’s not that simple.
For the two midfielders to play in those half-spaces, the two wide players would have to stay wide. City had Leroy Sane, for example — an extremely unique player in today’s game because he’s a touchline-hugging winger. So not only were the two players instructed to stay wide but they had the tools to be devastating from these areas. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood could be instructed to stay high and wide but there’s nothing in their numbers to suggest that this would get the best out of them as they both favour cutting inside, and are shooters as opposed to creative dribblers.
Amad Diallo has a promising future as genuine wide man. Scouted Football’s Kees van Hemmen (report) and the UtdArena twitter (report) account have gone through painstaking lengths to provide scout reports on the youngster but United need something more urgently.
It’s the full-back era everywhere but at Old Trafford
Even this impeccable City side had its Kryptonite in Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Liverpool’s system is well-documented. We can fairly quickly conclude why this United side can’t take much inspiration from Klopp’s side — United’s full-backs simply don’t offer the same attacking threat before there is any discussion about the other roles. Copying Antonio Conte’s Chelsea will also be a futile exercise for the same reasons. Mauricio Pochettino is a fine manager, but he isn’t going to magically transform Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka into different players.
The big conclusion here is that United lack a genuine wide threat, ironically given that is precisely what the club is fabled for in the Premier League era.
One might suggest that Alex Telles would be suited to Conte’s wing-back system or the way that Liverpool use their full-backs, but whileTelles will have a role to play in United’s season, there isn’t enough evidence to draw upon.
What’s in the box?
The Fred and Scott McTominay pairing, endearingly referred to as the McFred midfield, have been impressive in the bigger games but their limitations are fairly clear in other games. United have expectations of keeping the ball in the opposition's half and Fred is key here. Fred’s ability to cut passing lanes and press from the front allows United to defend from the front and retain possession. What Fred now needs is a partner who has Pogba’s verticality and progression, Nemanja Matić’s composure and reading of the game, along with McTominay’s strength and nastiness in duels.
United have been linked with Borussia Monchengladbach’s Denis Zakaria and had done everything in their power to sign Jude Bellingham. Two players who have many strings to their bow and could potentially partner Fred in a double pivot.
In recent fixtures, United seem to have found something to work from, all things considered, in the shape of a
diamond box midfield with Juan Mata and Bruno Fernandes dropping in between the lines — it’s given the team some defensive balance while allowing Fernandes in particular to run things as he has a partner to facilitate with him. It was used in a similar manner against RB Leipzig in the first half with Pogba and Donny van de Beek on one side of the box, and Fred and Matić on the other.
In this system, Rashford and Martial are two central attackers with the options of Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood to come off the bench. The full-backs take turns in the wide areas with Luke Shaw sometimes dropping into midfield. It’s still largely underwhelming with all the options that United have. It won’t be able to break down the best teams — as was witnessed in the game against Chelsea — but it’s likely to see United lose fewer games, and that might just be enough for this season. Maybe this season doesn’t require United to be fixture-proof, and a little undefeated run might go a long way to deciding United’s fortunes.
Backing the manager helps
We’ll never really know exactly what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted from Jadon Sancho, but we can assume that he was going to be used on the right wing. Would he hold the width in the way that at least one attacker has in those title-winning sides referenced above? We can’t be sure of that since Sancho’s time at Dortmund has often seem him drifting inside, but staying wide would’ve helped United fit a more symmetrical attack. Sancho would also be capable of fitting into the box midfield that Solskjaer has experimented with recently, due to his playmaking abilities.
It’d also be a lot easier to judge Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s coaching credentials before talks of a managerial replacement come about, had he gotten his primary transfer target. Even if he failed to use Sancho effectively right away, the team would have benefited from the investment. One only has to take a peek at West London. Frank Lampard hasn’t shown much tactical sophistication so far this season, but with quality players at his disposal, he has time to work on a winning formula — and his side have looked much-improved in recent weeks.
So for all the uncertainty around an identifiable style of play, United have shown that there are some clear patterns which increase the chances of success. Unfortunately, United just don’t have all the attacking pieces they need to allow the sort of balance that would make them a consistent side for all occasions.